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Sustainable development

Sustainable development refers to an economic and social development that is compatible with social equity, environmental protection, and the rights of future generations. The first definition of sustainable development was coined in 1987 in the report Our Common Future, better known as the Brundtland Report, named after the commission's president.

The difference between traditional and sustainable development

In economic history, there are different paradigms of development, not just one. Traditional development and sustainable development are two of these.

  • Traditional economic development. It is the form of development that characterizes human history from the earliest civilizations to today. Nature is the place to be modified or exploited to improve the lives of people.
  • Sustainable Development. It is a new development paradigm designed in the 20th century to address the world's major environmental problems and the scarcity of natural resources. Currently, it is still an academic concept, a future to strive for, although the international community is gradually trying to implement it.

The rule of the three E's. Traditional development only deals with economics, while sustainable development also takes into account the environment and social equity. For this reason, the concept of sustainable development is associated with the rule of the three E's (Economics, Environment, Equity).

From infinite growth to development limits

In the second half of the 20th century, the traditional development model enters into crisis. The exploitation of natural resources causes a rapid depletion of reserves. The first problems of resource scarcity (e.g. oil shock in the 1970s) and the first global environmental problems (e.g. the greenhouse effect, the ozone hole, smog, etc.) manifest themselves.

The classical development model leads to a future environmental and economic crisis

Population growth, the scale of production, and globalization modify man's conception of the planet itself. Earth is no longer seen as an endless prairie to be conquered, but rather as a closed system with limited space and scarce resources to be managed carefully (source A sort of spaceship or large global village where 7 billion people live.

In the 1970s and 1980s, several academic studies began to talk about the limits of economic development. The thesis was immediately embraced by much of the scientific community.

In particular, the theory of entropy spread, which asserts the impossibility of recovering all the energy of a closed system (Earth). The first and second laws of thermodynamics are applied to the economic system. These studies contribute to strengthening the idea of a global limit to progress and growth.

Therefore, economic development cannot be considered infinite. Trust in technology is scaled back. It is necessary to find a new paradigm of development: the paradigm of sustainability.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development does not deplete natural resources and respects environmental limits. In the paradigm of sustainability, economic growth is directly correlated with environmental protection, rather than being in opposition. This allows for better addressing the problems of resource scarcity and pollution.

Why is it called sustainable? It is called "sustainable" because the growth of the economic system is self-sustaining over time. It does not lead to a future crisis situation.

The following graph represents three cases of sustainable development (A, B, C).

At the starting point (today), humans can increase the level of development without further affecting natural capital (A). They can also decide to restore natural capital (e.g. reforestation) without penalizing economic development (C), or pursue a mixed policy (B).

A practical example of sustainable development is the use of renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, etc.) that allow humans to produce electricity without consuming the stock of depletable energy resources (oil, coal, gas) and with low environmental impact in terms of pollution. Another sustainable approach, according to eco-age, is the recycling of waste and end-of-life products to reuse raw materials in a new production cycle.

In conclusion, sustainable development is an economic growth that respects environmental limits. Unlike traditional development, it does not tend towards a crisis state. It is more durable over time.

The difference between sustainable development and degrowth

These are two different concepts that are often mistakenly confused with each other. Sustainable development does not deny economic growth, nor does it advocate for degrowth. On the contrary, sustainable development places economic growth among the social objectives to be achieved, along with equity and environmental protection. In theory, sustainable economic growth could even be higher than traditional development. Certainly, growth is more long-lasting over time.